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Confronting Change at the VES Summit

Our VFX Beat blogger reports back with highlights from last weekend's second VES reality check.

Jeff Okun declared its time to get out of the vfx rut. Images courtesy of the VES.

If the first VES Production Summit last year was about grappling with the new paradigm shift in breaking down barriers between pre-production, production and post-production, last Saturday's second Summit was about digging deeper, especially given the realities of the recession.

In fact, VES Exec Director Eric Roth led off the proceedings at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey by announcing that the goal was to aid the attendees in surviving the next five years. He then introduced Chairman Jeff Okun, who said that one of the goals of the Summit was to help "force our heads out of our rut" and to "get to the future in a lock-step fashion."

In other words, "to find a new way to the future so you can plan accordingly." He proffered a simile with the race to the moon that was initiated by John F. Kennedy when he set the goal of landing a man on the moon and safely returning him to Earth. Well, that should be easy enough for all of us to do…

Dr. Rich Terrile, NASA/JPL Astronomer and Evolutionary Computation Designer began on a technological note with "Pathways and Challenges to Innovation."

He pointed out that, given the fact that the computer is able to create such reliable worlds that are mathematically-based and can simulate our world so well that the day will come when the "virtual immersive experience is indistinguishable from reality." The universe, according to Dr. Terrile, actually behaves like a video game. As a result, "does reality lose its place as an objective truth"?

Bill Mechanic (r) gave some hard truths about movies "getting bigger and worse."

Meanwhile, Dr. Terrile said that in 30 years, computers will be able to simulate an entire human lifetime in one hour and the computer capable of this will only be a toy, possibly PlayStation 7. Also, more conscious entities will exist in computers than in humans. How comforting.

Issue specific to our industry, a number of topics were explored by the featured panelists, especially the hot one of where our business is headed. For example, when we initiate our work, we also create an archive on the day that perfectly matches the bits we're working with. But over time we modify those pieces we're working with and by the time the job is finished we may have strayed from the original information by as much as 20% , so the archive no longer represents the current truth but an older truth that has much less application than the modified footage. This is all due to the fact that metadata is generated by humans and is prone to the mistakes that humans make.

As we go deeper into the technological advances we need more on-set support. Video Village continues to enlarge to include not only sound and picture playback but also previs and a number of other technologies that will continue to blur the lines within a production. In the past we perceived three separate periods of the filmmaking process: pre-production, production and post-production. Historically, they overlapped very little, but with the incorporation of all these galloping technologies the line is largely disintegrated. Instead of reacting to what the set provides us as footage, we are now able to strongly influence how and what is shot during production and we actually determine the approach so that the captured footage will integrate smoothly into the finished film. In the case of Avatar, the James Cameron was able to see a high-quality comp that showed him exactly what the final shot would look like. This allowed him to move as confidently in a virtual environment as he would on a real, hard wall set. This empowered a fast cycle of decision making on the part of the director thereby reducing the influence of the unknown. The cycle of decision making is speeding up.

The final goal of all this integration will be the completion of the film on the final day of shooting so there is simply no post-production, just production. To this end there are more and more tools being developed. Dan Germain, WW Strategic Business Dev., DVS Digital Video Inc., stated that "each production is different and each needs a different set of tools to solve its problems.

Discussing how to adapt to ever-changing roles from (l-r): Jim Chressanthis, Shane Mahan, Jenny Fulle, Carolyn Giardina, Rob Stromberg, Ed Jones.

The new tools will serve to disseminate the information from one department to the next all seamlessly. As many of the workers in the vfx field see the world receding from them, David Morin, Autodesk consultant and chair of the new Virtual Production committee, pointed out that the field of architecture had already gone through its transformation to the computer. A completely digital process is coming and far sooner than some may imagine.

Bill Mechanic, producer and CEO, Pandemonium Films, delivered the day's most refreshing point of view. While those in the vfx side of the business have their strong opinions, many times they're afraid of voicing them out of fear of being singled out and blacklisted. Mechanic, on the other hand, speaks the truth about our business and our times. Right out of the gate he stated "movies are getting bigger and worse," comparing the golden age year of 1939 with this current movie season. With the exception of Inception, every film was animated, a remake or a sequel. The top 10 films accounted for 90% of the box office.

Mechanic emphasized the necessity of trust within the members of a film and made the point of saying that depriving the director of the final cut takes trust out of the equation.

In matters of finance, he admitted that the unlimited amounts of money that films now consume are not good for the movies. The absence of limitations is the death of art and at this rate only three movies a year will endure. He also suggested that the introduction of the Blu-ray was mis-timed and only represented a marginal increase in quality that frankly only those of us in this business would notice. Video on Demand will also take a long time to become the chosen method of distribution.  

One of the more telling and humorous remarks came from Jenny Fulle, founder and visual effects producer of the Creative Cartel and VFXWorld contributor. In discussing "adapting to ever-changing roles," she said that is no longer necessary to park your film in one facility. To further point out how the computer has made inroads into our business, she stated that "85% of the work done today can be done on a workstation that you can buy at Best Buy with some modification and a pipeline." Fulle also brought to the fore the notion that there is a global digital community and that the task of on the job training has largely migrated from the studios to the larger digital community. This has all been facilitated by the drop in cost of hardware and software.

The abiding feeling among the panelists is that the future belongs to the "risk takers." Warren Franklin, CEO Rainmaker Ent./vice chair, DigiBC, mentioned the fact there is a shift toward creating our own content in addition to providing service work to others. Cliff Plumer, CEO, Digital Domain, which has the eagerly awaited Tron: Legacy coming Dec.17, promoted the idea of becoming true partners in the process with the hopes of making some real money.

Rick Kerrigan writes the VFX Beat blog for AWN (http://www.awn.com/blogs/vfx-beat). He began his career as an assistant visual effects cameraman on The Empire Strikes Back, has also worked on The Right Stuff, Ghostbusters and Ally McBeal, where he supervised the Dancing Baby episode.

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